September 9, 2009

Part I: elephantjournal.com’s Waylon Lewis interviews Cyndi Lee of Om Yoga in NYC.

An Interview with

Cyndi Lee


OM Yoga Foundations in Contemplative Care Training for Yoga Teachers


Om Yoga Women Cancer Survivor Teacher Training.

Waylon Lewis, for elephantjournal.com: First of all, Cyndi, you’re known as one of the leading yoga teachers in the world who also practices Buddhism. What’s the connection between the two?

Cyndi Lee: Yoga means union, or connection. A lot of yoga classes invite us to join our body with our mind, or our small with our big self. Buddhism also invites us to open out, but teaches that there is nothing we shouldn’t open.

There is less sense of duality or doing, it’s more of an undoing. Buddhism is an invitation to open, to everyone and everything. No exceptions. I love this, even though it’s tough to do. You know, like if you decide not to eat sugar, and it’s hard, but you can do it.

No exceptions. That creates more clarity rather than deciding if this sweet thing is okay but that one is not…which becomes a huge self-centered drama. I’m not sure if that metaphor works or not, but right now, I’m on a cleanse of no sugar, wheat, soy, dairy, peanuts or oranges and feeling very purist.

Anyway, the bottom line of yoga­—or, you could say, the first principle of yoga—is Ahimsa, which means non-harming of self and others. Everything refers back to that. Can I do this pose with precision, but no aggression? This is a primary lesson of yoga.

Ahimsa creates the conditions for compassion to grow. As yogis and meditators, we can start by developing non-harming awareness through Buddhist mindfulness practice. From there, we begin embedding Ahimsa into our speech and actions. From there, it is a fairly natural evolution to relate (or try to relate), to everyone with compassion, which is more active an effort, rather than the non-doing attitude of Ahimsa.

So, now we are really practicing! And it gets personal, because this is not always easy. It’s not that being open-hearted and awake are unnatural states of being, but some of us are out of shape when it comes to these activities! So, just like bending and stretching our body muscles, we have to practice stretching our compassion, too. Asana class is a perfect and profound vehicle for practicing compassion and connection:

1.     Anything we do with our body is personal. Emotions come up the whole time and we can use the guidelines of Ahimsa, mindfulness and compassion to work with the friction.

2.     We are practicing in a room with other people. When you are in a yoga class, it is not all about you. It’s about creating a group space of silence, clarity and safety together. Amazing!

If we don’t allow our asana practice to get personal, it becomes route or goal-oriented. Without grounding our Buddhist mindfulness and compassion in our own bodies, goodness can remain theoretical. Do some good deeds! The integration of these two practices has great potential to help us yogis to become more enlightened beings along the way.

After you practice this way for a while, the notion of channeling this approach into helpful activities becomes appealing, almost like an urge that needs to be satisfied. The Foundation in Contemplative Care for Yoga Teachers Training is a program that will give yoga teachers and outlet for helping others.

It is not about doing. It is about being with yourself and others.

It is not so easy to sit with someone, to hold the space for them; to listen, to find out something you can do that might be helpful. Maybe you can just breathe with them, or read them the newspaper. It means a lot to people in hospice and hospitals to be seen as people, not patients. This work will include learning about anatomy of illness, quality of touch, pranayama work, meditation, bedside vinyasa but most importantly, how to be with another person openly, while staying steady.

Cyndi Lee, MFA, is the Founder and Creative Director of OM yoga Center. She is a longtime Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, studying with Gelek Rimpoche since 1990, as well as training in the Shambhala meditation tradition. She created the OM yoga method, integrating vinyasa or flowing form with precise alignment and the meditative elements of mindfulness and compassion. Cyndi has taught OM yoga teacher trainings and retreats worldwide. She is the author of Yoga Body Buddha Mind.

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